There’s a phrase (or saying) that’s become popular the last few years that I think fits with this reading quite well. The phrase is “well, that escalated quickly.” Sometimes it’s used sarcastically. Sometimes it’s used when the situation didn’t really escalate at all. Sometimes it’s just used when someone is being dramatic. However, with this reading, well, this is a situation that escalated quickly. We were just gathered less than a week ago singing by candlelight about a holy infant so tender and mild. Well, Herod has received news of this boy, this Messiah, the Lord. See, we don’t hear that part of the story today. Herod heard the wise men refer to Jesus as the king of the Jews. His first reaction? He was frightened. And out of his fear he reacted. No one was to be king but him. No one was to rule but him. He wanted to know where Jesus was and it was up to the wise men to tell him. But, when the wise men realized that Herod’s intentions weren’t what they seemed, they did not return to Bethlehem. Herod was furious. To make sure that no one would be king but him, he demanded that every baby boy under the age of 2 be killed. Well, that escalated quickly.
You don’t hear this story in your kids picture books in the telling of the Christmas story. There is only one Christmas carol I know of that speaks of this passage. You probably won’t find a depiction of this passage on the walls of a nursery anytime soon. It’s violent, it’s disturbing, and it’s another reminder of what happens when any of us fall to the power of sin: we become what we hate, the worst versions of ourselves. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this passage; a lot of relying on dreams. And of course, so much travel. Jesus was born into uncertainty and quickly became a refugee seeking only to be safe from a mad man who wished him dead. Scholars wonder if the slaughter of the innocents (as this passage is often called) actually happened. It is only spoken of in the book of Matthew. Even if Herod didn’t actually demand this horrible atrocity to take place, he had the ability to command and carry out such things. This was a man who “maintained a private security force and built fortresses [in many locations] so that he would never be far from a defensible refuge. He killed descendants of the Hasmoneans so he would have no rival. When he suspected intrigue in his own family, he killed his wife Mariamne and one of his own sons. Before he died he commanded that at his death political prisoners should be killed so that there would be mourning throughout the land” (Feasting on the Word, Culpepper 167). So did he do it? We don’t know. But we do know he was capable of escalating things quickly.
Herod was good at creating chaos and uncertainty. He wanted his people to question everything and follow only him. This world ruler was not about to stand very long for something new. Herod was invested in keeping the status quo because the status quo benefitted him quite well. And for Herod, the status quo didn’t involve a baby Messiah. In the midst of chaos and confusion, God provided a lot of protection. “God demonstrates God’s providential care in uncertain times” (Feasting on the Word, Thomas 166). Think about it: God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream; the Holy family took a very dangerous trip through the desert (as they fled to Egypt) traveling a lot by night (which was very dangerous) and weren’t hurt or harassed; we don’t hear this today, but the wise men were warned by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod; another angel appeared to Joseph after Herod died letting them know it was safe to return to Israel; finally in one final dream, God redirects the Holy family to Galilee. God provides protection in uncertain times.
This is where I find the good news in this terrible text. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find any piece of good news in a reading like this. But, the fact that God provides protection and guidance in uncertain times is good news for me. I don’t know if that sounds like good news for you, my beloved, but it is good news for me. I dare to hope, to dream, to even believe that if God can protect our Lord and Messiah from hurt, harm, danger, evil, and the most horrid people then maybe, just maybe, God can protect me. Just to be clear: faith in God does not, cannot, and will not preclude us from uncertain times, I think we all know that. But hope, for me, comes in knowing that God will protect and provide. God may not protect and provide in the ways we want (or even the ways we expect) but God will provide and protect always in the ways that we need.
God came into this world through a baby; an inbreaking of love that often sends us out to places that look like “Egypt.” These are places that may seem foreign to us, but will offer us the most protection and the places where God will meet us. Herod desire to slaughter innocent children should make us angry. We cannot become complicit in systems that would allow this to happen again and again. Where might God be sending us to share the news of this baby born to change the world? And if we’re being sent, don’t you know that God will protect us? If we’re being sent, don’t you know that God will provide? Herod honestly wasn’t the most evil person around. He built roads and infrastructure. But Herod was never held accountable. The public, people like you and me, never questioned him. When power goes unquestioned and unchecked, it can quickly turn into sin and evil. But, God provides. God always provides.
We know sin and evil have no place in this world and they will be defeated. It may not look like we imagine or envision, but they will be defeated; the cross taught us that. The cradle, and this fleeing to Egypt should show us that God’s reign shows up first to the most mundane ordinary places. Not to fortresses and halls of power, but to stalls full of animals and caravans of wise men bringing gifts. God also shows up to the most mundane people: shepherds, wise men, an unwed teenager, Joseph (through his dreams), and maybe, if we’re lucky, people like you and me. Evil does not have to remain a force of power in this world. We trust what God will do through Jesus Christ to defeat evil. We also continue to trust that God will provide for us through mundane means: bread, wine, and water. For now, that’s enough.